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Pakistan's crackdown on academics

April 10, 2017

The Pakistani government has intensified its crackdown on progressive university professors and intellectuals. DW looks at why the state considers these peaceful academics a threat to national interests.

Pakistan Karachi Patrouille Sicherheitskräfte Polizei
Image: Reuters

Earlier this month, the Pakistani paramilitary forces arrested Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a Chemistry professor at the University of Karachi, near the southern city's press club. Ahmed and two others were campaigning for the release of Dr. Hasan Zafar Arif, a former professor and leftist intellectual, who was detained last year by the security forces for his association with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a liberal political party whose leader Altaf Hussain has been living in self-imposed exile in London since the early 1990s. The Pakistani state considers Hussain a traitor; hence his party activists have been facing a fierce crackdown by police and paramilitary forces in the city which is still Hussain's political stronghold. Hussain, who in the past collaborated with the Islamic country's civilian and military leadership, has increasingly become critical of the state policies, particularly its alleged support of Islamist militants.

Ahmed, too, is a critic of the government's policies: the army's military operations against the jihadists, the silencing of dissidents, torture and illegal abductions of activists, and rampant human rights violations in the South Asian country. Ahmed, who was released last week on bail by a Karachi court, is not the only academic facing the wrath of the military and the civilian government for raising voice in support of religious minorities, political activists and the downtrodden; many other university professors and lecturers have reportedly been picked up by security personnel. Now they face charges ranging from possessing illegal weapons and committing blasphemy to treason.

Altaf Hussain Mutahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan
Hussain's party activists have been facing a fierce crackdown by police and paramilitary forces in KarachiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The police have also detained Professor Anwar Ahmed. He was accused of promoting 'atheism' at the university," Fahad Rizwan, an Islamabad-based leftist activist, wrote on Facebook.

Stifling dissent

But why has the government suddenly intensified its crackdown on academics, writers and intellectuals? Rights groups say the authorities want to stifle dissenting voices as an increasing number of people are criticizing their policies and actions through social media and other cyber platforms. And that is also the reason why the Pakistani government has introduced stricter measures to control social media and the internet.

"The callous idiocy of the state was on full display during the arrest of Karachi University Professor Dr. Riaz Ahmed and the registration of a case against him for allegedly being 'in possession of a weapon illegally,'" wrote Abbas Nasir, a senior Pakistani journalist, in "Dawn" newspaper.

But some would argue that it is not the state's "idiocy" but a well-thought out policy to target the country's opinion-makers, whose voice is now being increasingly heard by the masses.

"The crackdown on dissidents is actually a political witch hunt," said Arshad Mahmood, a Pakistani writer and social media activist. "Those who are critical of the state, the military and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project are being picked up by the government agencies. I wish the authorities had shown the same enthusiasm in targeting Islamist militants," Mahmood added.

A London-based Pakistani activist and academic told DW on condition of anonymity that he believes the harassment of intellectuals shows the myopic mindset of Pakistan's rulers and will promote a culture of intolerance.

"The prevailing nationalism in Pakistan, narrowly defined and lacking depth or subtlety, promotes intolerance of critical debate in the country. Academics and other members of the intelligentsia who engage with global think tanks are labeled disloyal or anti-state," he underlined.

"The establishment is unable to recognize that critical thinking is a necessary and beneficial feature of academic debate. It fails to acknowledge that academics that critique state policies are doing so for the wellbeing of society and in order for the state to perform better," the expert added.

Pakistan Demo vermisste Blogger
Many secular-minded people in Pakistan say they are not ready to give up the fightImage: picture-alliance/Zumapress.com

Rights groups find the trend of bloggers' abduction and detention of intellectuals alarming for the freedom of expression in the country.

"The civil society needs more unity now to protect the freedom of speech in the country. In the age of social media, independent thinkers have a platform to voice their concerns against certain actions of the government, and it is their right," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based development professional, told DW.

"Pakistani society, unfortunately, is being controlled to a large extent by the rightwing. These groups will never tolerate social, cultural and intellectual change that poses a challenge to their power. But I am hopeful the change will come soon," Mirza added.

The 'missing persons' phenomenon

In January, renowned rights activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital Islamabad. Three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza - also went missing. After weeks, all these bloggers returned to their homes, with Goraya claiming that he was "abducted" by Pakistan's law enforcement agencies.

While these activists work in different fields, they all have one thing in common: their consistent and sharp criticism of Pakistan's security establishment and conservative groups.

The "missing persons" phenomenon is not new in Pakistan. Thousands of people have disappeared over the past few years, but most of them are connected with an ongoing separatist movement in the western Balochistan province or the Islamist insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. In both places, the army is operating against "miscreants" and "terrorists," which it believes are working against the state.

Local rights groups have the details of at least 8,000 people they say have disappeared over the past 12 years without a trace.

Pakistan Demonstration für vermisste Angehörige in Queeta
Baloch men and women have taken to the streets in a protest over apparent kidnappingsImage: DW/Shadi Khan Saif

The activists' disappearance is not only condemned in Pakistan but across the world, especially among the Pakistani diaspora.

Asim Ali Shah, a leftist member of the London-based Faiz Cultural Foundation, doesn't directly accuse the government for the kidnappings, but rather views the issue as a failure of the state to protect the country's intellectuals.

"The government's National Action Plan to eradicate terrorism has been a total failure. We see the extremist literature that promotes hatred, sectarianism and intolerance is in circulation all across the country. Yet the state only cracks down on progressive bloggers, peaceful writers and political activists," Shah told DW.

But there are also people in Pakistan who say the liberal sections only protest when one of their "comrades" disappears, and that they never raise their voices against the military operations in the tribal areas that, according to them, have killed thousands of innocent people. They argue that many people with no links to the Taliban or any other militant group have disappeared in those areas, yet the civil society is silent about them.

"The missing persons belonging to the Islamist camp have never been an issue for the Pakistani liberals. They were happy when former military dictator Pervez Musharraf acted unlawfully against Islamic clerics and activists," Naufil Shahrukh, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), told DW.

"The US drone killings in the northwestern tribal region, and the kidnappings and extrajudicial killings of anti-Musharraf people never bothered the secular groups. The case of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is imprisoned in the US, is just one example of this hypocrisy," Shahrukh underlined.

But some say the Karachi University professor, Riaz Ahmed, is known for his sympathetic stance towards Taliban. The Marxist intellectual continues to raise his voice against the military operations against homegrown jihadists.

Ahmed, however, vehemently denies these claims. "I don't sympathize with the Taliban or any other right-wing group. I consider the Taliban brand of Islam dictatorial, which suppresses freedom and divides the working class and the oppressed," Ahmed told DW in an e-mail.

But experts say that his arrest proved that the government is not ready to tolerate anyone who raises his voice.

@dwnews: Rising concerns in Pakistan as outspoken human rights activists go missing